Discovering your dog’s flaws is a lot like discovering your child’s-it hurts to the core of your soul. It’s compounded when you realize you probably caused those flaws. Sadly, though Cinder is the last puppy I will have and I’ve tried very hard to do right by her at every opportunity, I have failed her miserably in something very important-early socialization. As a result, Cinder is “reactive.” She is definitely very “leash reactive” to new dogs and she’s mildly-moderately reactive to humans unless they talk to her or me; until she actually meets them, when she is almost immediately their BFF. This is a very ugly thing and may haunt her forever. In theory, her youth is on our side and makes it more likely we can work through it to get her back to a better place. However, once a dog is reactive, it’s generally like having something like diabetes-you can manage it, but the odds of actually being “cured” are low. I suppose this is the admission of our problem, making it the first step on the road to recovery.
This is my effort to share the little information I've learned and in no way is this a definitive thesis on dog reactivity:
What is a “reactive dog?” There are numerous variations on the definition of a reactive dog, but reactivity is generally a fear based series of behaviors (reactions) to certain people, other dogs, noises, other animals, things, or situations. The fear is so significant it generally elicits some serious behaviors.
Reactive dogs often react “normally” to many or most things and are only reactive to one or two things. In fact, many dogs are actually reactive, but their owners don’t recognize it as such; and their lifestyles don’t reveal the extent to which they may be reactive because they are well “contained” within their home lives. Signs of reactivity include: excessive barking at something-even at a distance; raised heckles; lunging at the target of their reactivity; snarling and baring teeth; and/or growling. Other signs can include things like: trembling/shivering, pulling/chewing their own tail; circling frantically; and cowering or hiding in/under something-some of them are classified as "neurotic" when they are actually reactive behaviors responding to something that scares or stresses the dog.
Dogs can be reactive to anything including: noises, motion, other dogs, cats, people (even just men or just women), only big dogs or small dogs. July 4th tends to scare many dogs and those responses are a form of reactivity. However, the reactive dog has more than an inclination to hide or bark a little. Some dogs are only “leash reactive”-they’re reactive to other dogs ONLY when one or both dogs are on leashes. In cases such as Cinder’s, the reactivity is totally fear and anxiety motivated; and her reactivity is nasty barking, lunging, snarling, baring teeth, and growling. In many if not most cases like Cinder's, the dogs are actually using a “preemptive strike” approach to the person/dog/thing they fear; using displays of aggression to drive the target away before it has a chance to get close. When the target keeps closing in on them, their anxiety increases and their behavior escalates. When it peaks at threshold level, they are acting on total instinct, usually to the exclusion of all their handler's efforts to control or alter their behavior. Of course, the reactive behavior is frustrating to their handler and then that adds fuel to the reactive behavior too.
Like people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or anxiety disorders, reactive dogs can have one or many of the behaviors that reflect their disorder; and they may suffer to greater or lesser degrees. Reactivity can be mild to profound. It can manifest in behaviors that are often considered quirky or annoying to downright frightening. The behaviors include a bell curve of anxiety/fear that goes from “sub threshold” (no or low reactivity) to at/over threshold (the dog has shut down and is acting on pure instinct with anxiety at maximum tolerances). The back side of the bell curve is the decrease in reactivity and anxiety. Once at or over threshold level, the dog will only calm if the target object is not visible-removed from their view. Generally, the profoundly reactive dog is suffering serious levels of anxiety and is less likely to be easily managed or controlled. Many mildly reactive dogs are often considered quirky and their owners live with the “quirky” behaviors because they are tolerable, even entertaining. The more reactive dogs are often considered and labeled as vicious and/or threatening – and they can become vicious if not well managed and handled.
In my research, it seems that researchers see reactivity in all breeds of dogs, from all countries but there are a large percentage of herding and terrier breeds frequently affected. It tends to be more prevalent in females than males; and sometimes spaying or neutering seems to lessen the severity so a hormonal link may exist. Known causes include: no or poor socialization as puppies; abuse and neglect; genetic predisposition; a traumatic experience (in the dog's mind, not necessarily the handler's); and they suspect that there are many other causes yet unknown and unproven.
Many think that “immersion” sorts of training will correct their reactive dog’s behaviors, but frequently, it contributes to increasing reactivity. The more successful approaches seem to be centered identifying the things that cause the dog to be reactive; at what distance or in what circumstances the dogs become reactive; at what point they are at sub threshold and at/over threshold levels. Once you identify those features of the reactivity, then training begins. Knowing what causes the dog to be reactive and at what points-what distance is safe or causes problems-then learning to manage the dog’s reactivity can occur. For dogs that are reactive to other dogs, going places like PetSmart and dog parks is OUT. The anxieties that cause reactivity are pushed beyond tolerances and fuel worse reactivity. Putting puppies like Cinder in group training classes is a waste of time and money because it sets them up for failure since other dogs are the cause of such horrible anxiety that drives them into reactive frenzies and many trainers are not qualified or skilled to effectively handle a reactive dog-especially in their group classes. One-on-one training with someone who knows and understands how to handle reactive dogs is the best way to achieve success-at least in the beginning. If you can find a behaviorist who also specializes in working with the dog’s breed, that is especially helpful because they are likely to know the best techniques for handling that breed. Progress for improving reactivity seems best through various training exercises designed to help the handler and dog develop better skills as a team; and learning how to handle a variety of situations while the dog is not under the stress of seeing a target that elicits reactivity. Gradually, the dog is introduced to distractions while working with its’ handler; and as they progress, they begin to introduce the person/dog/thing that elicits reactivity by seeing the target at the sub threshold level. Gradually, over weeks or months, the target is brought closer as the reactive dog and handler learn timing and techniques to handle the situation. If done well, time and training will help the reactive dog and handler learn to manage the situation effectively. However, as stated earlier, every case is different and success is dependent on many variables.
Cinder’s reactivity is likely due to our inability to socialize her outside our home during the winter months when she was small and the window of time for socialization is most critical for many dogs. Being so young and small through the hardest winter in the last 40 years meant being holed up until Spring – past those critical weeks during which she would’ve otherwise been socialized. My understanding is that Cinder is mild-moderate in her reactivity, but exhibits the nastier signs of reactivity that could easily lead people to think her vicious. That's what makes her reactivity a true life and death issue for her. As we all know, these days if a dog bites someone regardless of reason, it can result in their euthanization. However, her youth is on our side; along with my commitment to make this as right as I can for her. Certainly I never plan to give her up for any reason, but life takes us down roads we don’t always plan to take.When Cinder’s at home, she’s as normal as any puppy ever. I guess one may wonder why we ever need to worry about the reactivity if we just stick around home. I like to travel my dogs with me when I go places. We do all kinds of things and they all involve other dogs too. Keeping her at home to avoid the issue will only inhibit her life. She’s a Border Collie and she needs to be busy to be healthy and happy. It’s in her best interest that I work as hard as I can to help her overcome her reactivity or at least learn how to manage it acceptably-I owe her that effort.
I suppose that this is about to be a long chapter I'd never thought I'd have to contend with-or write about. But, I began this blog and our Facebook page to chronicle raising Cinder in hope that aside from being about our journey through life; we might also somehow help others on their journeys too. For the most part, life for us and Cinder remains fine and progressing. This is a side-step I hadn't anticipated, but we'll get through it somehow. Another day and another part of the commitment that is all part of Raising Cinder.